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CITES appeals to countries to watch out for trafficked Malagasy rosewood

  • International wildlife trade regulator CITES has issued an advisory warning that $50 million in Madagascar rosewood logs being held in Singapore could find its way back into the black market.
  • The timber was seized in 2014 in Singapore, but a local court earlier this year acquitted the trader responsible for it on charges of trafficking, and ordered the release of the 30,000 logs.
  • Trade in rosewood from Madagascar has been banned by CITES since 2013 and under Malagasy law since 2010, but enforcing the embargo has proved difficult.
  • The Singapore case highlights the pitfalls in implementing the ban, with observers faulting the Malagasy government’s flip-flop during court proceedings as to whether the seized precious wood was legal.

International wildlife trade regulators have issued an advisory drawing attention to $50 million worth of Malagasy rosewood logs seized in 2014 in Singapore that could potentially end up in the black market again. A Singapore court ordered the precious wood to be released from custody this April after it acquitted the trader who shipped it into the country.

The advisory from the secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), issued Sept. 26, calls on signatories to the treaty, which includes almost all nations, to be on the alert and take action if the contraband finds its way to their shores.

The call came in the wake of discussions about the status of illegal rosewood originating from Madagascar at the convention’s 18th Conference of Parties in Geneva this past August. In 2013 CITES banned the export of Malagasy rosewood (genus Dalbergia) and ebony (genus Diospyros), but the ban has been difficult to enforce.

Madagascar entered a period of political instability following a coup in 2009, when the state of law-and-order deteriorated dramatically. Illegal logging of rosewood was widespread, including inside national parks, and timber barons stockpiled the precious wood. In 2010, the country banned the export of rosewood, which is highly prized in countries like China, where it is used to manufacture high-end furniture. However, old and freshly cut logs alike continue to enter the illegal market. Coordination among countries through which the rosewood is channeled to its final destination is weak.

In March 2014, the CITES Management Authority of Singapore seized about 30,000 rosewood logs from a businessman named Wong Wee Keong and his Singapore-based company, Kong Hoo, one of the largest rosewood confiscations on record. The subsequent attempt to bring the traders to justice ended with Wong’s acquittal in April, illustrating the shortcomings in the implementation of the trade embargo.

A court initially found Wong and Kong Hoo not guilty in 2015, citing evidence that the rosewood was in transit in Singapore and that the country was not the final destination. This ruling was reversed in 2017 when the court sentenced Wong to three months in jail and slapped him and his company with the maximum fine of $500,000 each. On appeal, Singapore’s highest court found the defendants not guilty earlier this year and directed the authorities to release the precious wood to Kong Hoo.

The case hinged on proving that the wood was exported from Madagascar illegally and that Singapore was the final destination rather than a transit point. The Malagasy government flip-flopped as to the legality of the seized timber. After initially presenting documents to the court that appeared to show the logs were legally procured in Madagascar, it later withdrew them, claiming they were false.

“Singapore has failed to prosecute the defendants successfully twice due to the Malagasy government’s interference or failure to cooperate,” said Mark W. Roberts, a Massachusetts-based environmental lawyer and consultant who has supported efforts to hold Kong Hoo responsible for rosewood trafficking.

Securing the cooperation of other countries, even those like Singapore, a signatory to CITES, may not be straightforward. The Singapore court’s acquittal of Wong could stem from the risk that convicting him would pose to Singapore’s own interests as the world’s biggest transhipment hub, an intermediate stop for cargo heading to other destinations. “If the verdict had stood, it potentially would subject trans-shipped goods to Singapore’s internal laws, which would potentially impact trade and Singapore’s economy,” Roberts said.

The costs for storing the cargo for the last five years at a private port storage facility, which could run into millions of dollars, will be borne by the Singapore government.

However, the ruling also places Wong in a bind. To move the wood out of Singapore legally would require producing CITES documents from Madagascar. Without them, almost every country in the world will treat the wood as contraband.

At the CITES CoP in Geneva, Malagasy officials categorically stated that the logs had been illegally exported from the island. This could potentially strengthen the hand of countries that might prosecute parties attempting to import the wood. Lala Ranaivomanana, secretary-general of Madagascar’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, told delegates that the Singapore case was a priority for the Malagasy government, adding that Madagascar had sought the Chinese government’s help to intercept boats shipping the illegal timber.

“Potential destination countries of shipments of illegal specimens of Dalbergia spp. and Diospyros spp. from Madagascar should take appropriate measures to ensure that such timber is not illegally transported or traded, including prohibiting entry, seizing such specimens upon arrival,” the CITES advisory said.

However, there is concern that it might be too little too late, and that the wood will be transshipped, moved from one vessel to another on the open seas to circumvent border controls and never be heard of again.

For more on Madagascar’s rosewood:

Banner Image: Illegal rosewood stockpiles in Antalaha in north Madagascar. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Malavika Vyawahare is the Madagascar staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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